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Editorial: The region needs to get on the commuter train

by Josh Hammond

Standing with hundreds of my fellow citizens on a chilly afternoon in Uptown Waterloo, I found myself startled by the need for a Rally for Rails in our community. How did the so-called “debate” on this issue manage to get derailed?

It doesn’t matter how often we hear that light rail transit is too expensive; repetition won’t make it true. Are the costs high? Absolutely. The project will demand investments in the hundreds of millions. It would be foolhardy to forget that this price tag pales in comparison to the billions we would otherwise pay to accommodate new and widened arterial roads, or a bus rapid transit system that would need to be replaced with rail not long after the cut ribbon hits the ground.

It doesn’t matter how loudly it is asserted that the system will just run between two malls. Could it be said that the Conestoga Parkway just runs between St. Jacobs and New Hamburg? It seems those of us living in between those points find some use for that indispensable piece of infrastructure. The new light rail stations will be within walking distance of a great portion of existing jobs and residences, and will further concentrate development in our core areas.

It doesn’t matter that the arguments against light rail are simple, and the arguments for it are more complex. It may be easier to attack the proposal, but I’d rather take a few minutes to hear the complicated and accurate side of the story.

What matters is that we have a serious and rare opportunity to shape our community in ways that will protect and enhance quality of life for many years and even generations to come. We cannot pay for an endless supply of roads and sprawling suburban form that stretches our civic services to the limit. We cannot afford to lose the local farmland and watershed that sustain us.

What matters is that light rail transit, and the urban form it inspires, is just the kind of boost our economy needs. It will be less costly than the alternatives, keeping our related tax increases in check. It will provide real attraction to developers who are able to invest billions of dollars, creating vibrant spaces for our homes and workplaces. With it, we will be the kind of community that can attract and retain the best talent, and their employers.

What matters most is that we have allowed our discussions on the issue to be guided by the frequent, loud, and simple arguments instead of the truth.

With light rail transit, life in our region will be less costly, more convenient, and less polluting. Light rail will provide a desperately needed core for a revolutionized bus system. Fed by higher frequency bus service, and additional express routes, many of which are already budgeted for outside of the rapid transit program, light rail will finally allow us to graduate to a fast and linear transit system we can all be proud of and imagine ourselves using.

After a multi-year public engagement process, careful analysis by respected professionals inside our municipal staff and beyond, and with more funding from senior governments than we would normally enjoy, we have an excellent plan. If anything, it is a first step of many on the path to a responsible vision for sustainable transportation in our community. It should not need a rally; it is strong enough to stand in the spotlight of honest evaluation, if we have the desire to seek and hear the facts on the matter. The train is coming, and we should all be on board.